Historical Thinking for the Common Good

Everyone knows what history is until he begins to think about it. After that, nobody knows.

Alan Griffin

I find sometimes that this blog is a good place to put ideas still in formation out there for me to take a look at.

This is one of those blogs. The teaching of history is one of the building blocks of our society. In Teaching History for the Common Good, Keith Barton and Linda Levstik write that history provides citizens with capability to engage in collaboration towards a common good Barton, Levstik (2004). The teaching of history is what makes us responsible and discerning citizens. So, if this is the case, why do we seem to have so much difficulty teaching it?

I started my career as a history teacher and I have a graduate degree in History from York University. My studies didn’t prepare me to teach the subject beyond putting out a narrative to my students. A narrative that was not really up for debate, a narrative that was a pretty traditional retelling of the classic Canadian story.

Later on when I scheduled teachers into their high school classes, the mandatory history class – CHC 2D/2P was rarely taught by someone who majored in history. Generally, we put in junior teachers who were working their way up in seniority hoping one day to get senior courses in grades 11 and 12. These teachers were provided with a text and possibly some resources from the more senior members of the department. I don’t think in most cases, the narrative model for teaching was ever really challenged. Consequently, history was one of those subjects that many students really dreaded. It was not relevant, it was not engaging and it told just one side of the story.

Now this was a long time ago and I would love to learn that this doesn’t happen anymore, so if you are a history teacher and I am missing something, please let me know. Now, of course there are a wide variety of resources available to the teacher. Some are better than others, some are curated, credible sources of information, others not so much. But I wonder, even with all these new shiny digital resources, has anything changed in how we actually teach the subject?

 

The Think Like an Historian series by Historica Canada is an example of material now available to educators in Canada – this might help to makes some of the necessary changes in how we teach history

Actually, a lot has changed since I taught in the classroom. For more than 20 years, scholars have been writing about historical thinking – what it is and how to impart this in classroom. Theorists started to write that students needed to be asked to do more than just consume a national narrative. Students should be analysing or establishing causal linkages in history, they should be responding morally by remembering, admiring or condemning people and events of the past. Beyond this, students could be expected to identify with the past by making connections between themselves and the people and events of the past Barton, Levstik p. 6.

These ideas are percolating and changing all the time. In 2013, Peter Seixas and Tom Morton came out with The Big Six: Historical Thinking Concepts and in 2017, the Critical Thinking Consortium came out with Teaching Historical Thinking, both texts that I relied on heavily when I taught a history methodology course at the Faculty of Education last year at the University of Ottawa. Besides these works there is a whole range of other material that has been produced on new methodologies for teaching history. The ideas are fresh and exciting and all challenge the notion that history needs to be a boring apology for a national story.

When you start to look into this material, you will see that the really big idea here is teaching students how to discern and think. The Big Six concepts include historical significance, the use of evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, the development of an historical perspective and thinking about the ethical dimension of historic events.

This approach to teaching is well researched. Great material continues to be written, for example, a recent study by Lindsay Gibson and Carla Peck, examines how to teach historical thinking methods to pre-service elementary teachers Gibson & Peck (2020). They make an important point as part of this study:

The hope is that identification of core practices will establish a coherent language of history teaching practice, and will create a closer relationship between research on teacher education and research on teachers’ professional learning and bridge the gap between research and practice

Gibson & Peck p. 220

While Gibson and Peck have been able to develop teaching methods that have shown positive results with their teacher candidates, the real challenge is how can this methodology be extended to other pre-service programs, in-service professional development programs and teacher-support publications and websites. This is the work that needs to continue. Work has been done on what represents effective teaching practice in history, Fogo (2014), but has this been translated into materials and resources for educators?

This work has been done much more effectively in Science, Math and Language Arts and there are materials available that can effectively guide teachers on how to conduct inquiry in these subjects. Where this work has been done in History, the scale of the work is much smaller and does not focus enough on the links between teaching and learning Fogo p. 152.

A good example of the current work being done in other fields includes the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) which map out the key concepts and practices for teaching science in the United States.

Venn Diagram featured in The NSTA Quick-Reference Guide to the NGSS K-12

Maybe what is needed for history instruction is a version of the work being done to develop teaching strategies to be used in the classroom like the NGSS. This would be a huge task, but if we truly want to see a change in the way history is taught in our schools, we need to find more ways to translate the research into practice as Fogo suggests.

While there are materials for teachers to assist with teaching historical thinking concepts, like The Critical Teaching Consortium, The Historical Thinking Project, and the Think Like an Historian series by Historica Canada to name a few, there needs to be more resources that really assist teachers who are doing this important work. In other words, there is a great deal of the what and why of historical thinking concepts, but not nearly enough of the how.

There is no question that the teaching of history in our schools can be more effective. Research is showing that by and large, classrooms are still “sites of memorization rather than questioning, analysis, and interpretation” Gibson & Peck p. 213. While in other fields a great deal of work has been done to collect and study high-yield teaching strategies and then translate these though pre-service and in-service programming, this work still needs to be done in history education in our schools. If we really want to be doing history on a daily basis, we owe it to our teachers and students to bridge the gap between research and practice and replace old narratives with real thinking and analysis.

REFERENCES

Bain, R. B. (2005). “They Thought the World Was Flat?” Applying the Principles of How People Learn in Teaching High School History. Dans J. B. S. Donovan (dir.), How Students Learn: History, Mathematics, and Science in the Classroom (p. 179-214). Washington: The National Academies Press.

Den Heyer, K., Abbott, L. (2011). Reverberating Echoes: Challenging Teacher Candidates to Tell and Learn From Entwined Narrations of Canadian History curi_567 610..635 KENT DEN HEYER & LAURENCE ABBOTT University of Alberta Edmonton, AB, Canada

Gibson L., Peck C.L. (2020) More than a Methods Course: Teaching Preservice Teachers to Think Historically. In: Berg C., Christou T. (eds) The Palgrave Handbook of History and Social Studies Education. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi-org.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/10.1007/978-3-030-37210-1_10

Fogo F. (2014) “Core Practices for Teaching History: The Results of a Delphi Panel Survey. In: Theory & Research in Social Education, 42: 151–196, College and University Faculty Assembly of National Council for the Social Studies Theory and Research in Social Education 42, no. 2 (2014): 152.

Miles, J., Gibson,L., Denos, M., Case, R., Stipp, S., (2017) Teaching Historical Thinking (Revised and expanded edition) The Critical Thinking Consortium and THEN/HIER

Salinas, C., Blevins, B. et Sullivan, C. (2012). Critical Historical Thinking: When Official Narratives Collide With Other Narratives. Multicultural Perspectives, 14(1), 18-27.

Seixas, P., Morton, T., Colyer, J., & Fornazzari, S. (2013). The Big Six: Historical Thinking Concepts. Toronto: Nelson Education

Teaching Historically for Canada’s Future: Overall Goals and Objectives (2020)

The Washington Riots: We are like this

This week, in the midst of one of the most powerful and disturbing moments in recent American history, I decided to start an examination of why we study history.

This is the first blush at a longer project where I will be looking at how we teach history in our schools and what is the purpose of teaching history.

I am starting with Teaching History for the Common Good, Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (2004).  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers. As I work through this and other texts, I am going to record what I am learning here, the place I go to sort out my ideas. I think this is going to take some time.

It is never been enough to teach history as a series of events with no overview of why we choose these particular events. Why do we study the First World War? Have we always done this? Does it teach us anything? What, if anything does it say about us and our national journey?

In 1962, Alan Griffin wrote this in the World Book Encylopedia:

Everyone knows what history is until he thinks about it

When you start thinking about why we teach history and how we teach the subject, this quote rings true. If we want to go beyond a recitation of facts, names, and events, we need to understand why we are doing what we are doing. Not so much of the what, but much more of the why.

I was faced with this when I taught preservice teachers a course in Intermediate History last year. I have written about this before and I will eventually look in more detail about some of the key themes in history as current writers see them.  They include ideas like historical perspective, continuity and change, cause and consequence, and a number of other themes chosen to help students and teachers grapple with important issues.

But even before we choose the themes that are meaningful, we need to pause and think more about the why. Why these themes, why these events?

Before answering this, I want to return to this week in Washington.

When we witness events like this, we have to find a way to start making sense of what is going on. I am not going to try to do this here, but we do have the tools to do this important and really necessary work.

Now, if you haven’t, take a look at the photo essay at the beginning of this post.

The Paris mob attacks the Tuileries – look familiar?

The challenging point in the essay is this: we have always been like this. Saying ‘this is not us’ is not accurate. Actually, for most of our history, this is exactly what we have done. Whether we look to the Roman mob, the Parisian mob attack on the Tuileries, or the Montreal Richard riot, we have a long history of losing control.

The riots in Montreal when Rocket Richard was suspended

We know this. But listen to the New York Times.

American is a nation built on stolen land, by stolen people

Of course, so is Canada.

Listen to the narrative. It is all about our history. We can really only come to terms with what happened this week if we are able to see ourselves in our own story, that all of us come from a violent past where force made things right. Where when the mob held sway there was no justice and no peace, especially for the marginalized.

This is why we study history. Barton and Levstik write that at its very base, we study history to engage in discussions about the common good. We need to look at issues surrounding justice and we need to allow students to make their own considerations and “reason deeply about important human matters” (pg 37).

If I had a history class right now, I would show this short piece first thing on Monday morning. While this is a condemnation of present-day America, it is a condemnation rooted in history. We here in Canada do not get a pass on this either. Our own purposeful study of our own story reveals the same level of violence and hypocrisy.

mob violence in Republican Rome

So when we study history it has to be with a purpose. The New York Times piece is all about history. It is a considered examination of how we got here. It is related to so much that we all should know about. Saying, we are better than this, this is not us is missing a really important historical point. If we don’t see ourselves in these rioters we are making a fatal mistake.

How would the national conversation change if we took the longer view and say – yes this is us, now what?